With its solid but conventional filmmaking, Lone Survivor looks like one more popcorn-action movie, this time about Navy SEALS on a mission. But as it puts viewers in the center of a fatal fight in Afghanistan, Peter Berg's fact-based story becomes something timely and deeply important. With great immediacy, the film makes us feel trapped on a rocky hillside in the midst of an apparently endless fight with unseen, well-armed Taliban fighters. We become excruciatingly aware that real-life scenes like this are happening now to someone somewhere, and that they are infinitely worse than the slight discomfort we're feeling in the movie theater.
Lone Survivor begins as a typical war movie, introducing us to its team. Mark Wahlberg plays Marcus Luttrell, whose memoir inspired the film. In his fiercely loyal team, each member has his defining details: Taylor Kitsch plays Mike, the brave and rational leader; Emile Hirsch is Danny, who dreams of his wife and in his downtime helps her choose paint chips for remodeling; Ben Foster is Matt, hard-nosed and pitiless. The four head out on a mission into the hills -- an isolated place of bright green foliage and dry dusty ground -- to eliminate an al-Qaeda leader. Even if we didn't know it from the book or the 60 Minutes report, we could guess from the film's title where the story is headed.
Kitsch has the strongest role, as the man who has to
make tough decisions, and the actors are all strong presences. But essentially
they are playing heroic character types. Berg (still best known for the film Friday Night Lights) uses the war-movie
tropes to good effect, though, when the SEALS encounter deadly enemies who may look
indistinguishable from modest goatherds, but may also have access to rocket-propelled grenades.
The slipperiness of identifying the enemy is a major plot point here.
Once the team loses communication with its base and finds
itself in a battle, Berg gives us visceral images, without frills or fancy
camera-work. Relying on close-ups, he shows us blood, and bones poking through
legs. There is constant fire from unexpected positions. The attack is relentless,
and as it goes on and on, that becomes the point: there is no escape.
Eventually, one man does escape, and there are scenes showing
that not all Afghans are American-hating members of the Taliban. But this
survival story never loses sight of the loss at its center.
Lone Survivor is so
intense an experience yet so rigorously apolitical, with none of the baggage of
a film like Zero Dark Thirty, that its
detachment comes to seem like a dodge. Maybe that is the only way -- the only commercially
safe way -- Hollywood can make a film about a current war. But while Berg may
not have wanted to make a political film, no movie about a current war can entirely
escape it. Does the film simply carry
its importance lightly? Sell out to commercialism? Bury its weightiest
intentions? Any answer might be right for any viewer -- which speaks to the
cleverness and cautious nature of Berg's approach. To me, the film's true message
is not about the general horror of battle,
or about supporting the military and not necessarily the war -- abstractions
that are true yet cliched -- but that these horrors are happening today, like
background noise we choose to tune out.
If you get past its popcorn surface, though, in its own way Lone Survivor is as tough as 12 Years a Slave and maybe more so because
we don't have the distance of history to distract or reassure us. Like 12 Years a Slave, the film will make you
squirm, but you won't be sorry you saw it. Lone
Survivor earns every wrenching minute.